Paving roads with good intentions in the Brazilian Amazon


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More than two-thirds of all deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has taken place within 50 kilometers of a major paved highway. ’Avanca Brasil’, the Brazilian government’s national economic development plan, proposes to expand the length of paved highways in the Amazon from 12,000 to 18,000 kilometers. That would nearly double the percentage of the forest within 50 kilometers of a paved highway, increasing it from 16% to 28%. That would greatly increase deforestation and the risk of forest fires.

’Road paving, fire regime feedbacks, and the future of Amazon forests’ by Dan Nepstad et. al., published in Forest Ecology and Management, analyzes the potential impact of the proposed improvements in the road network. Whereas farmers have cleared an average of 32% of the forest within 50 kilometers of paved roads, they have cleared an average of only 5% of the forest within the same distance from unpaved roads. Based on that, the authors conclude the paving the additional 6,000 kilometers of road may lead to between 120,000 and 270,000 square kilometers of forest being lost. The higher estimate is about the size of Ecuador.

As a result of the proposed road improvements approximately 192,000 square kilometers of flammable forests would face a much higher risk of forest fire. Previous studies have shown that accidental fires are much more common in forests close to areas with agriculture and logging. Paving the roads is likely to encourage both those activities.

The paved roads will also make it easier for farmers and loggers to encroach upon indigenous reserves and national parks. Around one quarter of all indigenous reserves and federal conservation areas are within 50 kilometers of the roads the government plans to pave.

Paving some roads could provide substantial benefits for small farmers and local townspeople. For example, improving the portion of the Transamazon Highway between Altamira and Maraba in Para would be a major blessing for the 400,000 people who live near there. One might say that same thing about the road between Rio Branco and Assis in Acre. However, in other cases the improvements will be in places where few local people will benefit, but the danger to the environment is rather high.

So the question remains. Will ’Avanca Brasil’ make Brazil advance?

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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of the paper, please write Karen Schwalbe at:

To send copies to the authors, you can write Dan Nepstad at:

A copy of a related paper in Portuguese by many of the same authors, titled

’Avanca Brasil: Os Costos Ambientais para a Amazonia’ is available on the web at: